Who would have thought a French play from the late 17th century would become one of the most popular on the English stage in the early 21st?
“Tartuffe,” Molière’s 1664 satire, has received no fewer than four separate revivals or adaptations in or near London lately, of which the National Theater’s modernized version, running through April 30, is surely the most raucous.
Indeed, so knockabout is this treatment of the familiar parable of gullibility and hypocrisy, set this time in North London high society, that some may feel they are watching an upscale sex farce rather than a canonical mainstay. But once the thickly accented title character starts to work a malign magic on his trusting and pliable friend Orgon (Kevin Doyle), Molière’s play reasserts its cautionary power in this newly antic version by John Donnelly.
“Tartuffe” is the National Theater debut of the Tony-winning American actor Denis O’Hare, who is first seen in the title role handing out flowers in the audience before he takes the stage. He plays this guru con man as an outsider with a man bun, who has a habit of clasping his hands and saying “namaste” even as he embarks upon a stealthy takeover of Orgon’s home.
In this fractious household, which includes a venomous American wife (a nice turn from Olivia Williams) and a shrill ditz of a daughter (Kitty Archer), the disheveled Mr. O’Hare sends everyone hurtling toward self-recognition — a result signaled by a scenic coup that finds the cast sliding into an abyss of their own creation.
The director, Blanche McIntyre, is on surer footing after the intermission, once the cast calms down and Molière’s darkness is allowed to hold its own. “People used to be kind, now they’re ugly,” Orgon remarks, at which point a “Tartuffe” remade for the here and now prompts a knowing collective nod.
If “Tartuffe” seems to linger in the ether, awaiting re-evaluation at every turn, the Peter Shaffer play “Equus” has received surprisingly few new outings here since it had its legendary premiere in 1973 and went on to run on Broadway for three years. (I caught it there as a theater-mad teenager.)
A recent London and New York airing, starring Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe, was far from ideally cast and retained the same designer (John Napier) as the original, as if there were only one way of approaching the play. That aesthetic relied on actors wearing masks and metal footwear to suggest the horses that are blinded by a sexually dysfunctional stableboy, Alan Strang.
The disturbed teenager is under the care of a scarcely less stable psychiatrist, Dr. Dysart, who is called upon to heal Alan but turns out to need healing himself: The doctor is in many ways also a patient. This central duo coexists with a pacing, snorting equine world — represented figuratively onstage and with a balletic grace at odds with Alan’s horrific act.
It is bracing to find an era-defining play revealed as if from scratch by the soaring young director, Ned Bennett, in the unexpectedly exhilarating new iteration of “Equus,” a coproduction between English Touring Theater and the Theater Royal Stratford East. (The play runs through March 23 at that East London venue and will then tour the country through May 11.) Mr. Bennett’s solution, as bold as it is simple, is to dispense with the animal accouterments — the horsewear, so to speak — and let the human body do the work. A gifted ensemble, led by the dancer Ira Mandela Siobhan, complies extremely well.
You can still fault the play’s argument that the psychotic Alan is to be envied for feeling passion unavailable to the repressed Dysart. But inheriting a role usually reserved for high-style rhetoricians (Richard Burton onstage and in a 1977 film adaptation chief among them), Zubin Varla locates a humanity in the doctor that allows us to glimpse the suppressed attraction he feels toward Alan — which is as damaging to the married man’s psyche as those horses are to the sexually ambivalent boy. (Mr. Varla received an Olivier nomination on Tuesday for his performance last summer at the Young Vic in the American musical “Fun Home,” but his contribution to “Equus” is the greater achievement.)
A young unknown, Ethan Kai, proves Mr. Varla’s equal and complement, the newcomer laying himself bare physically and emotionally as this battle of two warped souls plays out. At a recent performance, it was gratifying to note that the play gripped a full house seemingly discovering it for the first time: a drama known primarily by repute capable of shaking a new generation of theatergoers.
But a play doesn’t have to be decades old before it can be made fresh. Off Broadway in 2017, Martin Sherman’s “Gently Down the Stream” felt like an unabashed star vehicle for its inimitably throaty leading man, Harvey Fierstein. Recast for its London premiere at the Park Theater (through March 16), this chronicle of gay life has a newfound tenderness that befits the poignant balance among its cast of three.
Jonathan Hyde brings a compelling disquietude to the part of an aging pianist from the American South named Beau (Mr. Fierstein’s role in New York), who finds himself unexpectedly opening his home and his heart to a younger, smitten Englishman, Rufus (Ben Allen, excellent). This week, Mr. Hyde received his own Olivier Award nomination for the performance.
What unfolds is a tale of loss whose pain is tempered by the unexpected community created between these cross-generational lovers and a baby-faced performance artist, Harry (Harry Lawter): Rufus leaves Beau for Harry and together they start a family, but Beau remains part of their lives.
Now 80 and best known as the author of the 1980 play “Bent,” Mr. Sherman punctuates the shifting affections with elaborate reminiscences from Beau that cast personal and political glances back at gay mores across the decades. Mr. Hyde and the director, Sean Mathias, field these set pieces with a generosity of spirit that surpasses what went before in New York: A history lesson has been reinvented to pierce the heart.